Q: My dog, Holly, keeps getting ear infections. I know I have taken her to the vet at least four times this year just for her ears. I try to take care of them at home, but she can’t shake this condition. She cries and flaps her ears all night and keeps us up. Do you have any thoughts?
A: Otitis externa, or ear infection, is a very common condition in dogs. In cats, not so much. Cats with dirty or smelly ears will often be suffering from ear mites or some sort of growth in the canal like a polyp or even a mass. Dogs can have these conditions too, but not as commonly.
You can do a little detective work at home on your dog’s ears. Very gently grab a piece of gauze or a piece of cotton and wipe the discharge from her ears. Be gentle, but get a good sample.
Generally speaking, the color of the discharge can give you a clue as to the type of infection that she is suffering from. This is not always the entire story, especially if she is suffering from a mixed bag of infectious agents, but you have to start somewhere.
Now look at the color on your gauze. If it is dark brown in color and waxy with a dry component to it, then you may be dealing with a yeast infection. In a few dogs, this dark brown can look like coffee grounds, and that might be evidence of ear mites. The way to tell the difference is to look at the discharge under a microscope. Not everyone has a microscope at home, but your veterinarian does and will do this for you during her exam.
If her discharge is lighter in color, like a tan color, and has a more creamy consistency — this work is not for the squeamish — then Holly may have a staph infection in her ears and the appropriate antibiotic should help her. Staphylococcus is a very common bacteria found all over our environment including in the ear. If something about the pet’s immune system falters, then Staph bacteria or any others present in the ear can overtake the good bacteria and result in an infection.
If her drainage is watery, white, yellow, green or black, then you may be dealing with a different family of bacteria called Pseudomonas. These bacteria require different medicines to treat them effectively. This infection will result in a smellier ear and will certainly make both of you unhappy if you get too close.
Lastly, if you get blood on your gauze then Holly probably has ulcerations in her ear canal from her infection and should be seen immediately by your veterinarian. These ears hurt, and she should be reluctant to allow you to clean or even treat her ears.
Blood can also mean there could be a growth in the canal deeper down than you can see. Your veterinarian will use an otoscope to look deeper into the canal to look for a causative agent for the blood.
These are all types of bacterial reasons for ear infection but there is something else to consider in dogs with chronic ear problems.
In lots of animals, allergies play an underlying role in chronic conditions. Both environmental and food allergies come into play. Of the two, food is a more common culprit. By changing her diet you may be able to decrease the frequency of her ear problems.
Try to find an odd protein source for her to eat, like a venison-, salmon- or rabbit-based diet. These diets are grouped in a class of foods called limited ingredient/antigen diets and can be found online or even in some of the bigger stores that sell dog food.
If you do go to a limited ingredient diet, remember treats and people food count. You need to eliminate these, too, because she could be reacting to ingredients there as well. You will need to put her on the limited diet for six to eight weeks to really see if it helps her or not, so be patient.
Good luck, and try to stay on top of her condition. Infected/inflamed ears hurt. But with a little detective work from your veterinarian and from yourself, I know you can find relief for her. Then Holly will sleep better, and so will you.